Last week I delivered the commencement speech to the East Carolina University School of Communication class of 2012. I thought I’d share the text here. In the process of writing this speech I learned so much about myself which mimics one of the themes of the speech–the journey is so much more interesting than the destination.
Your Life: The Whole Story
I’d like to start by telling you about my story. When I graduated high school in 1990, coincidentally that’s the year many of you were born, one of my friends signed my yearbook and said, “You’ll be great at whatever you do, as soon as you figure out what it is that you want to do.” At 18 I wanted to be a singer, an actress, a writer, but most of all, I wanted to teach and be a college professor.
Instead of going straight to college, I took a different path and in the past 22 years I’ve been a lifeguard, fire fighter, EMT, sales person, bank teller, waitress, computer programmer, and I know more about clogs than any person should.
During the years of bouncing from job to job, career to career, I attended college part time. During that time life happened and obtaining a degree often took a back seat. I constantly questioned myself, doubted myself.
What if I’m not good enough? What if I’m too good? How will I attend school and plan my wedding? How will I attend school with a baby and a job? How will I do it all? Am I too old to go to school?
I realized that I was going to be 30 by the time I graduated. Then 30 turned to 35 and then 35 turned to 39. And this was only for my bachelor’s degree. At this rate I’d be maybe 45 for my masters, 50-something for my PhD. Maybe I should just throw in the towel because I’ll be too old to do anything.
Yet each time I wanted to give up, I found a solution. The distance ed program at East Carolina allowed me to work full time, be a mom, and obtain my degree. But it wasn’t without additional challenges along the way. While working for a major computer company which I’ll call the evil empire, I was diagnosed with a neuromuscular disease. A week later I lost my job or as the empire so eloquently put it “my contract was terminated.” Devastated, I began the long search for a new job. I honestly didn’t know how I would get through this. Not only had I lost my job but I was faced with a major illness. Who would want to hire me?
Six months later I was hired by a public library to teach computer classes and it was there that I discovered my calling. It turns out, the reason I had always wanted to be a professor is because my passion is helping other people learn. Losing that job was one of the best things that ever happened to me. Losing that job brought me to the library.
The public library is often called the people’s university. The knowledge you can obtain knows no bounds and has no price. There is no tuition, and its doors are open to anyone from the President of the United States to the single mom with two kids to the new college graduate, looking for his first job.
Most people who work as librarians have a master’s degree in library science. Years away from any degree, I refused to let anything stop me. I refused to let anything stand in my way. I learned on the job. I read. I networked. I read some more. By the time I graduated from East Carolina I had several articles published in journals, traveled across the US and Canada to speak about libraries, and even took a semester off to coauthor and publish a book about teaching and learning.
Thinking back to my graduation, I remember looking around as I stood in the procession line and not only feeling old but a little intimidated. The guy in line in front of me had a giant pirate ship on his head. It was rumored to fire cannons during the ceremony. What was in those cannons I was not sure. When I was handed my eye patch I put it on over my glasses determined to show my pirate spirit and walked with the class of 2011 into this auditorium barely able to see yet reveling in the fact that after 20 years, I was finally graduating.
As I listened to the speakers and anxiously waited to walk across the stage many different things were running through my mind as are probably going through yours. How would having a degree change my future? Should I go to graduate school? What if I trip when I walk across the stage? Would the speeches ever end? After making that walk across this stage, I sat down and I asked myself if I felt different and to my dismay, I realized that I didn’t feel different at all.
Since graduation I’ve realized that it’s not the piece of paper that matters, though your parents are surely glad that you will finally have it – in just a few moments (I promise). What matters is the journey you took to get here. The things you’ve learned along the way. The friends you made. The papers you waited until the last moment to write. Group projects. Research. Studying for finals.
As you walk across this stage today remember that this day is only one page of your story. The last page of your chapter here in the School of Communication.
It’s true that you are graduating in a difficult economic time but it is also an exciting time for communication graduates. Jobs created today not only didn’t exist ten or twenty years ago but they could never have been imagined. The Internet and social media have changed the way we communicate forever. The skills that you have learned here are the foundation for your career, for your life, for your story.
If there is one piece of advice that I can give you that I wish someone had given me it’s accept yourself for who you are right here and right now. There are so many times in life when we are looking for something or we are waiting for something to happen and thinking that – whatever the something is will make us happy.
The problem with this thinking is that there will always be something more that you will want and something more that you can accomplish. Be happy with who you are now. Live in this moment. Don’t try to skip any pages or chapters. Even the bad ones.
One of my favorite stories of all time is Harry Potter. I’m sure many of you have read it (or seen the movie). Imagine only reading the end. Imaging missing out on the moment when Harry learns he’s a wizard. Imagine missing out on the moment when Harry wins his first Quidditch match. Imagine missing out on Dobby the house elf. Imagine missing out when Harry defeats Lord Voldemort. (I hope I didn’t spoil that for anyone.)
Life is like a series of great stories. There are exciting headlines and leads, there are boring facts to muddle through, there are ups and downs, and there are heroes and villains. When you craft your life, your story, you get to choose your plot and your characters. Choose well. If someone is bringing you down. Rewrite him into a minor character. Don’t let anyone else write your story and most of all don’t miss a moment of it.
There is a myth that successful people have some master plan and that we have always known what we wanted to do. But the truth is … we really just keep putting one foot in front of the other. We try things. We make mistakes. We try again until we find our passion, our calling, our story.
What happens from here is up to you. East Carolina has given you a wonderful foundation to do anything that you want to do. The School of Communication and the work that you’ve done has prepared you for the 21st century workforce. The class of 2012 is going to do great things. You have the power to change the world. You have the power to change lives. You are going to create a fantastic story.